As the last bars of 'The Golden Age of Grotesque' faded I was left thinking: well thank fuck it didn't suck. Nobody – me, you, 'the industry', and especially not Marilyn Manson – needed a stinker at this time. Yet the 'black propaganda' that preceded 'The Golden Age of Grotesque' was ominous: the buzz – if you will excuse the use of this most odious of London music business terms for gossip and innuendo – was that the album was going to drop like a rather unpleasant bromide. And lo, there would be much wailing and gnashing of teeth… nothing tangible, you understand, just whispers here and there, Mates of mates who were talking to somebody, who knows the janitor at Interscope… 'oh yeah, he's heard it and it SUCKS! It's bad rap metal, it's unlistenable art rock, it's a cynical attempt to recreate 'Antichrist Superstar'. Of course, Twiggy was the REAL talent behind Marilyn Manson…'.
'The Golden Age of Grotesque' is a good album, adventurous in parts, but on the whole, no really big surprises. There's a concept, but not one that he ended up tripping over when writing the songs. There's some playing around with different styles and influences, but nothing to alienate the MTV-watching Sunny Delight-quaffing burger-fed mid American malcontents who still comprise Manson's core demographic.
So who would be putting it about that this was going to ming? Well, Manson has no shortage of detractors and we're not just talking about no-neck Christian fundamentalists who think he's the devil, causing US teens to dress funny and shoot each other. There are enough people in 'the industry' who have it in for Manson, even – shock horror – elements within his own label who have been rubbed up the wrong way, who would relish the prospect of the Antichrist Superstar falling flat on his arse.
See, record companies are now nor have they ever been in the 'art' business. Record companies are in the 'making money' business and if an artist makes money, well and good. They can be indulged… to a point. If not, they get cut loose. There's nothing intrinsically immoral about this – at least, it's no more immoral than any other business in a capitalist society – it's how they keep the shareholders happy.
Manson has always been a money maker: After selling 1,69 million copies of his '96, 'Antichrist Superstar', Manson mustered a 'mere' 1,22 million in sales for the glam-gore sequel, '98's 'Mechanical Animals'. 'Holy Wood', on the other hand, sold just over half a million albums: it didn't lose money, but since the profits were lower than anticipated by the bean counters at Interscope's parent company Universal, there was a certain amount of concern.
On 'Holy Wood', his huge, unruly post millennium album, Marilyn Manson deliberately set out to create a masterpiece. It was, he let it be known, going to be his 'white album', referring to The Beatles' eponymous '68 double that is still as perplexing and infuriatingly brilliant 35 years on as it was the day it was released. Like that Beatles album, 'Holy Wood' combined state of the art studio techniques and gimmickry with a back-to-basics heaviness. But there the similarities ended. History has a way of reassessing works of art that were failures – or perceived as failures – at the time, but somehow you don't feel that it's going to be very kind to 'Holy Wood'.
From the label's perspective, the trouble with making records is that the artists tend to get in the way of the process: art is fickle and unpredictable. What they want are essentially puppets that can deliver product under budget that will recoup roughly 10 times the outlay in terms of overall sales. If the record is a work of art, well, that was an accident. So when Manson started outlining his plans for 'The Golden Age of Grotesque' – collaborations with visual artists, recreating the artistic spirit of Weimar Republic era Berlin, the Dadaist Cabaret Voltaire's in post WWII Zurich, the dark glamor of early Hollywood, "a weird cross between Revolting Cocks and Ludicrous" – you can picture the scenes in the label boardroom. "Jesus H Christ. It's only a fucking heavy metal record! Tell him to shove his art up his fucking ass and give us a record full of catchy fucking pop songs that we can sell to fucking Johnny Skateboard at the Boise, Idaho Wal Mart!" And in a sense that's only what he's gone and done…
From the get go, Manson is delivering what both the record company and the fans want. 'This Is The New Shit' is a glittering piece of ugly-glam that seems to both celebrate and send up the Manson sound and the process of churning out 'angry' rock'n'roll in the third millennium: "Babble, babble, bitch, bitch / Rebel, rebel, party, party / Sex, sex, sex, don't forget the violence / Blah, blah, blah / Got your lovey-dovey sad and lonely / Stick your stupid slogan in / Everybody sing along / Are you motherfucking ready for the new shit? / Stand up and admit it, tomorrow's never coming / This is the new shit / Stand up and admit it."
It may be giving the finger to people at the label, people in the media, anyone with expectations of what Manson is all about. 'Ka Boom Ka Boom' is a reply to the A&R man who complained of the album having no 'ka-boom'. Now it does, motherfucker! All of that aside, 'The Golden Age of Grotesque' is packed with classic Manson – as well as, unfortunately, one or two Manson-by-numbers tracks like 'The Bright Young Things' – but he's pleasing the crowds on his own terms.
"The story with the album and how it falls into place is very much how you hear it," says Manson. "This Is The New Shit" was the first song that we wrote and what I sing is very much how I felt going in to make the album, faced with all the questions like, 'where do we go from here?' And 'what can I say or do now?'. The first time I turned on the microphone in the studio these are the words that came out of my mouth. The song ends with the line, 'let us entertain you' and then the album takes you off on this journey and ends up saying, 'I'm not ashamed that you're entertained, but this not just a show, it's my life."
Produced with Tim Skold, ex of KMFDM who replaces Twiggy Ramirez (ironically KMFDM were one of the bands that the Columbine trenchcoat mafia actually were fans of; despite the media babble none of them were really big on Marilyn Manson) it isn't layered in impenetrable gimmickry like 'Holy Wood'. It's clean and basic.
The theme, as we've noted, never really gets in the way of the songs; in fact were it not for the album's centerpiece, the title track 'The Golden Age of Grotesque' itself, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it went no deeper than the art on the sleeve, that this album was just 'some songs'.
For all that he is an articulate performer and a challenging theatrical figure, Manson's music has never been what you'd call adventurous. For all the big concepts, at the end of the day what he does is great heavy metal.
But 'The Golden Age of Grotesque' is a decidedly unusual song by Manson's standards: at once reminiscent of the anti-Nazi cabaret songs of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill as well as the 'dark carny' music of Tom Waits and even Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, it's a song that almost doesn't fit on the record. Yet it's the one that sets the whole tone of the record, drawing together all the shadowy and nebulous parts into a whole.
"'The Golden Age of Grotesque' was the last song we wrote", says Manson. "I woke up one day and I had had a dream about a piano on fire. I came down to the studio and said to the band I want to write a song that's a burning piano. I didn't really have to say much more than that; I let them follow my lead. The 'The Golden Age of Grotesque' began at 1pm and ended at about 4am. The vocal take that's on there is the first one. I spread out my stack of 57 notebooks because I've been writing down every thought that comes into my head these days and I just pulled pieces from here and there.
I sang the chorus, it was the first time we'vd done it and we kept it because it was so raw, there was something special about it. We added things to it later but basically that's a song that was created in a day which is a phenomenon for us."
"It has this Kurt Weill element, a Brecht inspiration. All of that went into the way we approach performance and the next tour, changing the rules and boundaries of the stage. All of that including the Dada inspiration comes from finding a place where the world run its course with creativity and you realize that the simplest thing is to disregard not just everybody else's rules but your own rules too, to think like a child again and find the genius of imagination by letting go with reckless abandon. And that's what we did on this. We've made a record that some people think is very accessible but to me we just wanted to make a record that pleased us."
But the rest of the album's influences are slightly closer to us in time: it almost goes right back to the roots of goth, to the late 70s and early 80s, to the likes of early Bauhaus, Psychedelic Furs and Adam and the Ants just before they became pop stars (particularly on 'Doll-Dagga Buzz-Buzz Ziggety-Zag') who were similarly drawn to Weimar cabaret, and art movements like Dada and Futurism.
"That's definitely a good staple from my past that probably bled out. The one special thing that I liked about that era is that there's something really dark to those albums, that music. It was the first stuff that I gravitated to when I watched MTV as a kid. All of the songs were real poppy, but they were real dark. That's something that you can never really recapture… especially in American music. It's probably overlooked that all of those bands who made those great records throughout the 80s were all European."
So what is it about the dark inter-war period that has drawn Manson? To put this question into context, the interview was conducted on the second day of Gulf War II as the planes pulverized Baghdad and we had been discussing real and existing fascism in the world today as well as the historical variety. I was curious as to why Manson – an artist who has been nothing if not ruthlessly modern – was delving into the dark times of the last century when we have all the dark times we need around us right now.
"I wanted to write about relationships. I didn't consciously sit down and make that my theme, but that was what was important to me and what I felt that I had opened the doorway to in past records. I had talked about and fought a lot of wars on my past albums and I feel like when you win at something it's time to build something new. So I wanted to build this amusement park of an album that talked about relationships – personal ones, relationships between us and our country, us and the world, man and woman, chaos and order. The 30s were very inspirational because a lot of thing were coming of age just before the war. Hollywood in the 30s was when Fashion became a real commodity and Weimar Berlin was like an unruly child or a woman you can't master. It reminded me of relationships, something that starts out with the right intentions, invites you in, much like the record does, with the sense of humor. Then it becomes more passionate and that city became more decadent and everything rises to this extreme point that's always someone's fear. Fear of the father from the child, fear of the government, fear of one person in a relationship, who can't handle something so powerful that it becomes destroyed. Berlin and all the artists who lived there and were creating like there was no tomorrow is how I have relationships and it became symbolic for me. This record was making references to WWII and how expressionism was being created in the face of fear… it ended up becoming a timely statement. Some of the songs have become more relevant to America now than they were when I wrote them because history repeats itself."
'The Golden Age of Grotesque', then, is a bit of 'safety' album: MTV friendly songs to pump up those sales and a striking visual theme to show us that Manson is moving forward – albeit through the past. There's also been some pre-emptive censorship on the part of Interscope: Manson's original concept would feature two images devised by him and artist Austrian Gottfried Helnwein with anson appearing as a cross between Mickey Mouse and Hannibal Lecter, one image white and one black. Mickey Mouse has obsessed Helnwein since childhood when, growing up in the post-war debris he was given a comic book by an occupying GI. When his '95 painting Mickey Mouse was exhibited for the first time he said: "What do I associate with the name Disney? The inspiring sacred comics of my childhood, that gave me a chance to escape from the cold Nazi-country into a world of joy and wonder, or Michael Fisner's multi-million dollar mechine that smothers the world." Manson too is similarly ambiguous. When the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels staged the notorious 'Entarte Kunst' ('degenerate art') exhibition in Berlin, showing paintings by the Dadaist, expressionist, cubist and modernist artists as examples of 'Jewish' art to be mocked and despised though really it was an exhibition of the greatest art of the time, he also banned Mickey Mouse as 'degenerate'. Yet in contemporary America where 'degenerate' art is under attack from the 'family values' mob, the cosy escapist work of Disney is like the 'official' art: bland, unthreatening, saccharine. Yet beneath the happy clappy exterior, the Disney Corporation is notoriously litigious with the nastiest copyright lawyers on Earth.
"Those images were created for the album and were forbidden by the record company over that same fear. But I have in no way infringed upon anyone's copyright or trademark. It's purely an image from my imagination. Strangely, now when I turn on the news and I see that Disneyland is now the place that everyone is supposed to stay away from (it was named as a possible terrorist target by the FBI-TU) it's very ironic. I don't think that Disney has a problem with art as they do with commerce. It's a shame that I can't be on the album but the way I treat it is that if someone tells me I can't put something here, I'll put it somewhere else, I'll put it in someone's front yard, I'll take it on the road. If I have something from my imagination that I wanna show people then I'm gonna show them. I always have tried to do this, but this is a war that I'm prepared to fight."
Manson has already announced that the Grotesque Burlesque will precede any tours or album releases – literally a cabaret cum album playback that will involve "art, performance, collaborators" (he won't be too specific) – which will visit several US cities as well as Berlin. Well it would have to really. Whether his Weimar vampire theme catches the mood of the times remains to be seen: in many ways it is already too late. This isn't so much Zurich 1925, Berlin 1931 or Hollywood 1933: to extend the metaphor it's already 1940 at the height of the fighting, Is fascism coming in America?
"Repressed personal fascism is something I've talked about for years. It's like Hollywood creating fashion and making it a commodity. People were walking around in the 30s living like they were in a movie and I love that. But they were also made to feel that if you don't look like the people on the movie screen then something is wrong, something's missing. That went hand in hand with religion, a way to make people afraid and controlling them. Fear and consumption. So in that loose and unpolitical way, fascism didn't go away, it just became part of capitalism. You can't say that literally because it's unfair to people who actually lived and suffered in fascist countries, but in that metaphorical way, the two can be compared." Michael Moore's Oscar winning Bowling For Columbine may have gone a long way to changing people's perceptions of Marilyn Manson in America. Instead of some degenerate raging beast they see the articulate, smart and humorous artist that we know Manson to be – he believes he is now seen as "a different kind of villain" – out in ultra-conservative redneck country he's still the devil. A school principal in North Carolina used the outbreak of war to crack down on kids wearing Wu Tang Clan, Tupac Shakur and Marilyn Manson t-shirts to school.
"That sounds very much like book burning. It's hard being an American and seeing things from inside America. I've always been able to detach myself without being an expatriate. I've always been able to look at America through outsider's eyes because I'm treated like an outsider. A find things like that very ironic and comical and it just makes this a better and more appropriate time to be creative than ever. I said this before the election and it's now true more than ever that underneath this Republican Party is the time that I thrive most, when you're underneath the more repressive regime is when art is always at its best."
This Is The New Shit
Marilyn Manson – The Golden Age of Grotesque (Interscope)
Every war needs a torch song singer. WWII had Marlene Dietrich, The Blue Angel, and GWII (whether America realizes it or not) has Marilyn Manson, The White Devil. Yet while the musical and artistic zeitgeist remain the same – both artists disenfranchised by their respective countries etc. – unlike Marlene, you sure as hell won't find Manson entertaining the American troops in the desert!
The dictionary defines a torch song is "a sentimental or romantic popular song, usually sung by a woman", whilst scholars have gone one step further and insist "there is no such creature as a male torch singer… the essence of torch singing is a woman lamenting her lost love, i.e., her man." But, as we all know, Marilyn Manson is a very different kind of creature, and his torch is burning for his own lost love. The loss of an age of awe and wonder, leeched to death by the speed of America's consumer culture – l'impatience de l'homme.
Album opener 'This Is The New Shit' is a preconception shattering "hold your horses!" to both critics and fans who no doubt have their own ideas of what a new Manson album SHOULD be. All whirring KMFDM drills, pseudo-Eminem beats and loud mechanized Rammsteinesque guitars, the ringmaster invites you to pull up a seat and "let us entertain you!" Anti-propaganda propaganda if you will, and you know how we all love hype and propaganda!
'mOBSCENE', the first single to be culled from 'The Golden Age of Grotesque', is the invitation to the party-cum-Dada rally, coupling a 'Fight Song' style groove with kooky cheerleader gang vocals, and 'Doll-Dagga Buzz-Buzz Ziggety.Zag' serves as the predinner appetizer in a trippy Adam And The Ants vein. Where as 'Use Your Fist And Not Your Mouth' takes the party out of the rathskeller and into the suburban home. A self-styled 'black-collar' anthem for the dejected, denothing all is not well in Disneyland, before Manson rolls out the Grotesque Burlesque that is this album's title track – a song which has as much in common with the Marquis De Sade as Marlene Dietrich. And it's just like throwing acid in the Mona Lisa's face!
Indeed, it is this schizophrenic dichotomy of outward beauty vs inner sorrow that governs much of this album. And, unlike previous offerings, 'The Golden Age of Grotesque' seems to be a lot less controversial – there are no obvious anthems decrying God and government here . and it actually seems to be more about Manson's inner psyche.
Take '(s)AINT' for example, with its refrain of "Hold the s because I am an ain't" or 'Ka Boom Ka Boom' with its ironic "I like a big car / Cos I'm a big star / I write a big rock'n'roll hit / I'd like to love you but my heart is a sore / I am I am I am so yours" or the anti-love song that is 'Spade' ("You drained my heart and made a spade") – all very much in the vein of Marlene Dietrich's 'Falling In Love Again' ("Men flock around me / Like moths around a flame, And if their wings burn / I know I'm not to blame / Falling in love again / Never wanted to / What am I to do? / I can't help it"). This is a man on the edge – a fiend for the fans and fodder for the press. And as album closer 'Vodevil' states "This isn't a show / It's my fucking life / I'm not ashamed / You're entertained / but I'm not a puppet, I am a grenade".